“Lord, do not hold this sin against them!”
Acts 7:51-8:13 from the daily reading in the One Year Bible
“You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. 52 Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; 53 you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it.”
54 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. 55 But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; 56 and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. 58 When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep.
8 Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 Some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. 3 But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.
4 Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word. 5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and began proclaiming Christ to them. 6 The crowds with one accord were giving attention to what was said by Philip, as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing. 7 For in the case of many who had unclean spirits, they were coming out of them shouting with a loud voice; and many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed. 8 So there was much rejoicing in that city.
9 Now there was a man named Simon, who formerly was practicing magic in the city and astonishing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great; 10 and they all, from smallest to greatest, were giving attention to him, saying, “This man is what is called the Great Power of God.” 11 And they were giving him attention because he had for a long time astonished them with his magic arts. 12 But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike. 13 Even Simon himself believed; and after being baptized, he continued on with Philip, and as he observed signs and great miracles taking place, he was constantly amazed.
A few days ago we looked at how Stephen gave us a great example of how we should live. Having been selected to wait on tables, he did that small thing as though unto the Lord and performed great signs and wonders among the people. In today’s text, in both his life and through his death, Stephen again shows us how we should live. After his uncompromising testimony of Christ (that is part of how we should live, with and as an uncompromising testimony of Christ) to the religious leaders it says in today’s text: Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep. It is one thing for Jesus, in the midst of His suffering, to say from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) After all Jesus was God in flesh. Forgiveness of all sin was His very reason for coming to live as a man in the first place. But, Stephen was just a man like me. If he could, in the midst of the pain and anguish of being stoned to death, ask for forgiveness for the very ones causing his pain, what excuse do I have for not forgiving any and every offense?
I, like most people have been hurt and offended, mistreated, disrespected, used and abused by others. We are, as followers of Christ, commanded to forgive others as we have been forgiven. We are to bless, even our enemies. In Matthew 5:44 Jesus says: “I say to you,love your enemies, bless those who curse you,do good to those who hate you, and prayfor those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” What are we to pray for them? We are to pray that they would be forgiven, that they would come to know Christ and the forgiveness of sin. Jesus commandment to forgive and the consequences of not forgiving are made clear in Matthew 6:14-15, when Jesus says: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.Butif you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” So there is a selfish motive to forgiveness. We are to forgive others because it is what is best for us. Here’s the thing about forgiveness. It is one thing to forgive once we have come out on the other side of the pain and anguish. Isn’t that how we most often forgive? Don’t we wait until we see that we have made it through before we consider forgiving? We forgive conditionally, based on the fact that we are okay. We delay forgiveness. The world likes to say that time heals all wounds; so we wait for the healing that comes with time rather than the healing that comes from forgiveness. Perhaps our forgiveness includes our insistence that others know and understand what they did to us. Jesus said Father forgive them they don’t know what they are doing. Why does our forgiveness necessitate that they do know what they have done? Neither Jesus nor Stephen came out okay from the offense of those that they forgave. What if Jesus hadn’t forgiven because He died? How was Stephen able to forgive such an offense, even in the midst of his pain and suffering? The text says: being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Romans 8:34 says: Christ Jesus, the one having died, now rather having been raised up, who is also at the right hand of God, and who is interceding for us. Stephen saw into the heavenly realm. He saw from the perspective of heaven. He saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Not only interceding for Stephen, but also for those who were stoning him. At that moment in finite time, Stephen heard the words of Jesus, as they echoed through eternal time: “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” Stephen heard Jesus eternal words: “It is finished.” How could Stephen, seeing Christ, not forgive what Jesus had already forgiven? The forgiveness of the sin was already finished, complete by Jesus on the cross. How could Stephen do anything but agree with the finished work of Christ?
We too, if we will live like Stephen, if we will live lives of unconditional forgiveness, need to look into the heavenly realm. We need to see Jesus there. We need to hear His words echo through time eternal, to our time. We need to hear as He says of our sin: “Father forgive them.” Then we, like Stephen, being full of the Holy Spirit, will be able to say: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” What I have come to know about forgiveness, at least for myself, is that I am incapable in the midst of pain and anguish, in the midst of the hurt or offense, to say Father forgive them. So to live a life of unconditional forgiveness, I cannot wait. You see in Matthew 10:21-22 Jesus says: “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved.” If we know that it will happen, that we will be betrayed, not only by our enemies, but also by those who are close to us, we should not be surprised. We need not wait until we are in the midst of the pain and anguish of our suffering. We should decide now. Just as Jesus forgave them saying, they don’t know what they are doing, we should, even now, choose to forgive, knowing not what they will do, but knowing what Jesus has done, that it is finished. Their sins, along with ours, are forgiven.
Heavenly Father, Lord Jesus Christ; precious Holy Spirit; empower me to live a life of unconditional forgiveness. Help me to truly forgive, as I have been forgiven. May I not focus on the things people will do, but rather may I focus on what You have done. Through the fullness of the Holy Spirit, may I always agree with the finished work of the cross. Even now I choose to say: Father forgive them. Amen.